Kayak Racing in the Wild Wild West


Team NRS kayaker Tyler Bradt takes us on a wild ride through the Northwest kayak racing circuit, culminating at the North Fork Championship.


I could have gallivanted anywhere in the world this spring, but, aside from my usual Norwegian cravings, I had no desire to be anywhere but my back yard. It’s the promised land in the height of all of its glory – springtime in Montana and Idaho.

I put a copy of Taladega Nights in the DVD player and planned a little shaking and baking of my own.

With the hype for the North Fork Championship race running ramped, and coming off of my final recent back surgery, I knew I needed to get my act together and continue becoming the athlete I have spent a lifetime working to be. So, I concocted a little plan to put myself at the top of my game coming into the North Fork Championship, with just over a month remaining till race day. I put a copy of Taladega Nights in the DVD player and planned a little shaking and baking of my own. I bought a 12-foot 1959 camper trailer for $300, painted it purple and hit the road. First stop: the Big Fork Whitewater Festival.

I first attended this event when I was about 11 years old. The Riot bus was there and so were the shenanigans of the Riot Kayaks team. It was the place where my daydreams of becoming a pro paddler got an endless supply of energy, and I was excited to go back.

I came in hot with a full quiver of Dagger boats, a case of PBR, and a winning attitude.

I came in hot with a full quiver of Dagger boats, a case of PBR, and a winning attitude. The local competition was stacked, and I felt the pressure both on the water and at the bar.

My first run of the upper slalom was a disaster; about half way through the run I lost it, blew an eddy, flipped, and passed a couple gates upside down. Needless to say, there was one thing going through my mind as I hiked back up the course: I needed to get my act together. My next run I left no margin for error and put together a good run. Looking at the score sheet that evening, I was stoked to see my name at the top of the list. It was all I needed to feel my game starting to come back.

That night, I uncharacteristically I put myself to bed early at about 3 a.m. to be ready for the following day’s races. I woke up pounding my magical concoction of Gatorade and Advil and got ready to hit the river. The day went well. I sandbagged the downriver race, being that dude that shows up with the only Green Boat, and managed to put together good lines on the Giant Slalom shortly after. I swept the competition – exactly how I wanted to start off the trip – and, feeling good, I pointed my trusty Ford Ranger (and much less trusty trailer) towards the Little White Salmon.

The Little White Salmon is a team race, and I was stoked to be teaming up with fellow NRS paddler Dan Simenc (Skippy). I have known Skippy for ages, and recently his paddling has been going off. A week of doing two Little White laps a day is about as much as anyone could ask for to get into shape and paddle amazing whitewater. Skippy was working all week, but we did manage to get together the day before the competition for a run together, and it felt good.

The race day turnout was amazing. My good friend Aaron Rettig, director of World Class Academy, put on the event, and everyone agreed that this was going to be an amazing and burly race. The course runs from the top of “Getting busy” to the bottom of “Wishbone”, approximately a 15-minute run through some of the best whitewater the Pacific Northwest has to offer. Skippy and I were towards the top of the pack to start, and we put together a decent race. Skippy got a couple of unlucky bounces and ran a few drops upside down – but, being the charger he is, he had good recoveries and we still finished respectively in 9th place, with Evan Garcia and Isaac Levinson bringing home the bacon.

Without much delay, and with much anticipation, I loaded up with my newly adopted Kiwi sons, Bradley Lauder and Dylan Thomson, and headed for the North Fork of the Payette – the crown jewel of this year’s West Coast racing circuit. The North Fork was another trip down memory lane for me. I paddled it top to bottom when I was 14 years old and had only been back once or twice since. Upon arriving at the river, I couldn’t believe I had let all those summers slip away without any North Fork action.

The energy was high at the North Fork, and not without reason. The course was STOUT. Looking up the Jacob’s Ladder rapid from the bottom, or down from the top, there is no distinguishable line – just chaos stacked on chaos. I felt that now-common feeling of unease and butterflies at the same time. I knew this was going to be a race of note; all the hype was certainly not unfounded.

 I did the yoga, paddle, yoga, paddle, nap, yoga, paddle, beer routine for a couple of days, and that seemed to finally calm my nerves.

We immediately put in for a top-to-bottom, and I immediately began getting my ass kicked. I either needed to pull it together or get off the river. I decided to pull it together, and the run went well. The river comes at you as fast as you can handle it, with multiple must-make moves in every rapid, and with every rapid following right behind the previous one. We got to Jacob’s Ladder, and despite the team of 10+ rock star paddlers that I was with, no one was eager to paddle it. I am not the type who likes to sit around overanalyzing, and I went to the top with one of my Kiwis, Dylan, to charge into it. I didn’t really care about a single gate. I just wanted to get to the bottom upright and put together some semblance of what the racecourse would look like.


Unable to hold back an audible roar charging into the top, I startled the ramp crew and various spectators, but I needed to get fired up. It’s all or nothing on Jakes…

The run went well, but I still wasn’t feeling comfortable. I felt like I do at the bottom of a lot of big stuff I run – stoked, but not necessarily scrambling to take my boat back to the top of it. I knew that if I was going to run this race well, I had to get over my fear of the rapid. And there is only one way to do that… run it over and over again.

For the next few days leading up to the race, I got into a routine of parking the trailer so I could see the meat of Rock Drop out my front door and sessioned hard. I did the yoga, paddle, yoga, paddle, nap, yoga, paddle, beer routine for a couple of days, and that seemed to finally start to calm my nerves. It’s a weird thing to be at the North Fork and only paddle Jacob’s Ladder over and over again.

I eddied out  just as I blacked out, with another quarter mile of Class V lurking downstream.

Just as any anticipated event happens, the race day was upon us before anyone was truly ready. I was lined up to run about midway through the first round of paddlers. Then, finally, under an overcast sky with my hair still dry, I fired down the Red Bull ramp with all the intense anticipation and anxiousness of the shore melting away. I charged hard through Rodeo Hole and laced it. I nailed the eddy at rock drop and charged hard to get around the first gate – laced it. My arms were already starting to go lactic going into the hole at rock drop for the ferry around Gate 2, but I somehow nailed it too. I was seriously under gunned, though. All those weeks of intense racing and paddling evaporated in under a minute, and I was just coming into the section that worried me the most: Taffy Puller and Golf Course.

There are two lines at Taffey Puller, down the middle or to the right. The middle is a faster, but much more difficult, line. I hadn’t even run it yet in practice, but, in the moment, there wasn’t a decision in my mind; I charged with what energy I had left into the center of Taffey Puller and was rewarded with a clean quick line dropping into Gate 3, which was set a couple feet away from one of the biggest holes on the river. I nailed Gate 3 as well as I could have and finally started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I charged as hard as I could around the last upstream gate and down the final 100 meters to the finish line. My good friend Rush Sturges was in a micro eddy by the gate, and I felt my vision starting to go just as passed the finish line. I eddied out and grabbed Rush just as I blacked out, with another quarter mile of Class V lurking downstream. It only took about twenty seconds to regain my vision and another minute or so to catch my breath. I knew I had done what I came to do: I had put together as good of a run as I could hope for and laid everything I had on the line, to the boarder of unconsciousness. If I was going to be beat, it would be fair and square, and I could walk away from the North Fork knowing I did my best. A rumor began floating around confirming my suspicions that I had done OK on my first run. I was leading going into round two…

The rest of the event went by with much excitement. Paddler after paddler shot off the RedBull ramp and into the top of Jake’s. The few people who swam were immediately bagged from the bank, and over 60 runs went down on Jake’s that day without incident – truly an amazing display by both the paddlers and the safety crew. I pulled out midway through my second run after taking an even more ballsy line through Rodeo Hole and getting surfed into the rocks on river right; I knew at that point that I wasn’t going to top my first run. I watched the rest of the paddlers run through, continuing to feel strong about my standings in the race. Then I saw Ryan Casey go and knew that my hope for first place was dwindling. Standing at 6’ 8”, Ryan is a beast – easily the most powerful paddler on the river. In my eyes he is the Shaquille O’Neal of kayaking, and he fittingly put together an amazing line through Jake’s – the best I had seen yet.

No one really knew what the outcome of the day would be, and the anticipation from the race carried through all the way to the awards ceremony. It was bittersweet hearing my name called out for second place. One second faster would have put me on top of the podium, but Ryan had honestly beaten me. I couldn’t have put together a better run in my current physical condition. On a river with such an amazing group of local paddlers who love it dearly, it was great to see that Ryan, a local, had come out and beat a stacked crew of professional athletes and kept the title “King of the North Fork” amongst the locals who live and breath for paddling the North Fork. The party that followed was exactly as you would expect in a small redneck Idaho town overrun with hundreds of paddlers: wild.

With my trailer still holding together after the long road trip, I continued the circle back to Montana, happy with the occurrences of the past few weeks and eager for more. It felt good to come out of a potentially career ending injury with more momentum than I’d gone in with. Sometimes life’s biggest hits are its best motivators…